upfronts 2011

How Does a Network Build a Fall Schedule? Fox’s Scheduling Chief Reveals the Strategies

Today kicks off Upfront week, when all the focus in TV land is on the bevy of new shows the networks are ordering (and the old ones getting the hook). But true TV obsessives won’t just be looking at the shows, they’ll be scrutinizing when they’re airing. It’s all about the grids: Which new series are facing off against weaker holdovers, which big hits are being moved against each other — and will anyone finally put something good back on Saturday nights? Fact is, for all the talk that DVRs and Hulu have made schedules irrelevant in the modern TV era, the networks still take which shows go where very seriously. A decision to shift American Idol off of Tuesday nights could’ve cost Fox millions had it gone wrong; instead, it’s helped the network finally become a player on Thursdays and made Bones an even bigger hit. So just how do these time slot chess moves get made? Vulture rang up someone who would know: Fox’s head of scheduling, Preston Beckman, who has 30 years of grid-making experience. During his busiest and most critical season, we asked him to give us a peek into the process, letting us know just what goes into the crafting of a fall schedule. How much is commerce, how much is instinct, and how much is strategy?

Schedulers don’t wait to get to work until they’re handed a final roster of shows; rather, they’re brought in early in the development process. Like all Fox senior execs, Beckman, a bearded and bespectacled New York native with a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU, gets looped into projects early on in their gestation; he reads a few scripts, mostly those his colleagues in programming indicate have promise. Beckman gives his input and begins imagining where these new shows might fit best, and he keeps tabs on how projects are progressing as they get picked up to pilot and filming starts. But the real work begins in early May, once all of the pilots have been filmed and suits from all over Fox (yes, including Rupert Murdoch) screen the contenders and decide what moves forward to series.

While he works most closely with Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly and Fox Networks Group chairman Peter Rice to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, there are other factions weighing in. “You have various interest groups,” Beckman explains. “The people who put together the development, research, current programming, marketing, sales. All the constituencies are heard from.” So with all these voices weighing in, what precisely determines which shows end up on the schedule, and where? In addition to the most obvious — which shows are likely to make the most money for a network — three big variables shape the final scheduling decisions, Beckman says:

The shape of the current season’s lineup. “We need to put on shows that fill our [programming] needs,” he says. “We don’t want to have to blow up a schedule to get a show on the air.” Translation: Just because a pilot turns out great doesn’t automatically mean it gets slotted. A promising contender like Locke and Key, for example, might turn out great, but if execs believe they already have enough sci-fi, it won’t move forward. (Indeed, all indications are that the project is dead, though Beckman and Fox suits weren’t talking specifics about the schedule last week.)

Research. Networks like Fox shell out millions to study how viewers might react to a program, testing out each contender with focus groups. “Every year there are shows that test so well that we have to give them a second look or convince ourselves it’s a false positive,” Beckman says. “If you get a low-testing show, you shouldn’t put it on. But if it’s high-testing, you still need to drill down. There may be red lights, signs it’s not as strong as it seems.”

Gut. Network brass often get painted as soulless number-crunchers who care only about ratings and bottom-line profits. But Beckman says that when it comes to scheduling, you can’t discount “the passions of the people in the room. What will they fall on their swords for? There’s always a show people fight for even though all the evidence suggests it won’t work, and there’s no place on the schedule for it … There are differences of opinion. But we talk it through.” That’s what happened a few years ago, with Glee.

When Fox was debating whether to green-light the musical show and, ultimately, how to schedule it, “some of us were skeptical,” Beckman admits, counting himself in that category. But once the show got picked up, Beckman quickly became Team Glee: “It was, ‘Okay, how do we get this to work?’” His idea: Temporarily shift So You Think You Can Dance from summer to fall so that Glee had a compatible lead-in when it premiered. The ploy worked; Glee has been a cornerstone of Fox’s schedule the past two years. “You don’t sabotage shows, even if your gut tells you it won’t work.”

Most schedulers, including Beckman, will tell you that the best prime-time schedule is one that features the least amount of change possible. While bold moves get lots of media attention, predictability is a scheduler’s friend; fewer changes equal less viewer confusion and, often, better ratings. And yet, every so often, networks do have to make bold moves — either because too many shows have failed or because external factors demand it. Take one of the ballsiest switcheroos Beckman has engineered in his career: When he was at NBC in 1994, he moved Frasier from its comfy post-Seinfeld slot over to Tuesdays at 9, opposite the then-mighty Roseanne. At the time, Entertainment Weekly said the Peacock “must be nuts” for such a shift; Kelsey Grammer’s agent at the time told the magazine that the actor refused to go to New York for upfronts because he was so pissed by the move.

So what was behind such a major roll of the dice? “That was under threat of death from our sales department,” Beckman reveals. “We had planned to go with unscripted on Tuesdays, but someone in sales told me she’d kill me if we came to New York with that schedule.” Back then, in the pre-Survivor era, “unscripted” meant shows like Unsolved Mysteries, which were far less attractive to advertisers. “I thought about it and thought about it, and then I woke up at 3 in the morning with the idea of putting Frasier on Tuesdays.”

While much is often made of networks playing a giant game of chess with each other, moving shows to match their rivals’ plays, Beckman says the best scheduling strategy is remaining focused on your own lineup. “The more you focus on yourself and the less you worry about others, the better off you are,” he says. Which is easier to do when you go at the start of the week, right after NBC; then everyone has to react to you. “If we didn’t go first, we’d react,” he admits. “You try to out-think yourself, and it doesn’t work.”

However, Beckman does concede that adjusting to another network’s schedule can pay off. Case in point: He says the decision to shift American Idol to a Wednesday-Thursday air pattern this January was partially a response to CBS’s call last fall to replace Survivor with The Big Bang Theory on Thursdays. It was a great move by the Eye, turning BBT into an even bigger success; at the same time, it meant there was no longer an established reality show in that time slot for the first time in forever, and Fox claimed it for Idol. “You look around and all of a sudden your Spidey sense tingles and you say, ‘Holy shit! Do they realize what they just did?’ And hopefully they didn’t,” he says. “For them it was a bold move. For us it was opportunity.”

Beckman is a realist when it comes to scheduling. He understands that the TV landscape has changed radically in the past decade, with DVRs and other time-shifting technologies making it much harder to play by the old rules. But, “It doesn’t bum me out,” he says. “I feel I’ve evolved along with the changes in viewing patterns. A lot of the things we’ve done take into account changes. Moving Fringe to Friday was probably the first scheduling move that took into account the delayed viewing of a show.”

Then there’s the fact that not everybody watches TV via DVR or downloads. “The majority of people still watch TV live,” he says. “Scheduling still matters.”

How Does a Network Build a Fall Schedule? Fox’s Scheduling Chief Reveals the Strategies